For those that can tell their boogaloos from pop locking, and appreciate the multifarious displays of MCs, hip-hop theatre holds no fears. However, the challenge has always been to convince other audiences that they can access it, too – even if they might be inclined to shun the idea of a complex street form collaborating with the traditions of high-brow theatre.
But if choreographer Kate Prince has her way, hip-hop theatre may be about to establish itself in the mainstream, now that her show Into the Hoods is getting set to become the first long-running hip-hop musical in the West End. "The question used to be, 'does hip-hop belong in the theatre?'", says the 33-year-old. "Now it's, 'does hip-hop belong in the West End?' I'm thinking, why not? If we get it right, we're going to be opening doors for the rest of the hip-hop community."
Based on Stephen Sondheim's 1987 Broadway hit, Into the Woods, Into the Hoods is an adaptation that's been nearly three years in the making. It proved its credibility after debuting at London's Peacock Theatre in 2006, before wowing crowds at the last two Edinburgh Fringe Festivals and picking up a Herald Angel Award. "We'd been used to doing a sort of urban crowd down in London and then we went to Edinburgh and we were like, 'Oh God, no one's going to like it, they're going to be quiet, they're not going to get it!" Prince recalls. "I remember looking through the curtains, looking at what the audience looked like, thinking it's not going to go well – but it was the opposite."
With its witty choreography and hilarious moments, Prince has given Sondheim a remix nearly as fantastic as the original. The premise of a baker and his wife entering a world inhabited by Prince Charming, Jack and his Beanstalk, a Giant, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel still exists, but it's now been given an inner-city backdrop, with a soundtrack featuring Kanye West, R Kelly and Basement Jaxx as its lifeblood. The "hoods" in the title alludes to grimy council housing – in this case, Ruff Endz estate, the home of Prince, a D-list celebrity who's made his name as the local philanderer; Rap-on-Zel, an up-and-coming MC; Jaxx, a skateboarding producer in the making; Spinderella, an ambitious female DJ; Giant, the estate's drug dealer; Wolf, a dodgy record label boss, and Li'L Red, an aspiring R&B singer. "She's cheeky, she's mysterious, she's got a lot of ambition," says Sacha Chang, a seasoned dancer who's been playing the part since the show began. "There's a hip-hop street side to her, but we're still trying to keep that fairy-tale character intact."
Instead of the baker and his wife attempting to gather ingredients to reverse a spell which has been cast upon Rapunzel (the baker's sister), they're now two children lost on the estate after playing truant, and are befriended by the evil landlord (formally the witch) who promise them a room in his block on the basis they collect Nike trainers "as pure as gold", an iPod "as white as milk", hair extensions "as yellow as corn", and a hoodie "as red as blood". The urban references don't stop here – the show opens with an ominous display of hoodies dancing to a menacing revamp of the Teddy Bears' Picnic and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth". The narrative is told through snippets of hip-hop and R&B song lyrics, flashy animation, comedy and of course, the street moves, which lend themselves to mean feats of acrobatics.
Prince insists that the production may be painstaking in its loyalty to the hip-hop genre, but is as accomplished as any other dance show. "If you turned the sound off, and if you take away from the fact that the actual style of dance is hip-hop, it looks like a kind of conventional musical in many ways," she says. "But it's very contemporary. It's today, it's London, and I think it makes a good social comment about stereotyping. At the beginning of the show, we purposely reinforce the stereotypes in order to break them down."
"It's the whole hoods thing," adds Rowen Hawkins, who plays Jaxx. "It's quite scary, quite eerie, and that's the most immediate preconception of going into an estate or whatever, but the characters, they're all really nice people. They come alive out of this darkness. It's the colour and the life, inside this conception of what street life is."
Into the Hoods also honours the realism evident in Sondheim's musical and the work of Austrian writer Bruno Bettelheim, whose book The Uses of Enchantment inspired the idea of going beyond the surface of fairy tales. "Jaxx sells drugs to pay his rent. Li'l Red wants to be a singer and signs a deal with a horrible man – but they redeem themselves. The Prince is an idiot, a two-timer. There's realism, but it's mixed up with a whole spice of fairy tale. So it's never going to be that real – because it's got magic in it," she smiles.
When Kate Prince decided to tackle this remake, none of the lead cast had seen the musical. Prince had only seen it once. Yet she was keen to tell a narrative through dance, having tried her luck with her own production at Breakin' Convention in 2005. It was later suggested that she attempt a fairy tale, and a joke about doing Sondheim's award-winning musical eventually led to her getting a commission from Sadler's Wells to take it on. She describes those initial attempts at adapting the musical as "rough around the edges", and even now, she's changed the production on numerous occasions to develop its appeal. There are now veiled references to Pop Idol, a lindy-hopping number and even some Barbra Streisand.
Prince's eclectic tastes can be traced back to growing up in Hampshire with "nothing much to do" and being inspired by the musicals and the dance style of Janet Jackson. Once she decided she wanted to become a choreographer, she moved to London and trained simply by attending dance classes. She went travelling in Africa, but then went to Edinburgh University, where she put on musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors, Oklahoma! and Chicago. She eventually returned to London to set up, in 2000, ZooNation – which became one of London's premier dance troupes and has made numerous music video and television appearances, including Strictly Dance Fever and Graham Norton's When Will I Be Famous?
Prince has the advantage of being well-acquainted with the mainstream, as do a majority of her dancers. However, the unresolved issue has been whether a hip-hop show can really be a commercial success. Hip-hop's controversial image could be a turn-off for many audiences, especially those in London's West End.
"There so much more to hip-hop than guns and rapping and making money," concedes Jeffrey Felicisimo, who plays Giant. "We're setting the record straight." Roger Davies, who plays the Prince, is also believes that the production could change the perception of hip-hop. "A lot of times, people think hip-hop, angry. They always think of the negative side of hip-hop, but they don't see other sides. It will open people's eyes to another side of hip-hop."
Frank Wilson, a former collaborator with Jonzi-D and Robert Hylton's Urban Classicism, who turns up in Into the Hoods as the Landlord, reckons it's about time hip-hop moved in the direction of the West End. "Popping, boogaloo, robotics, things like this which are hip-hop – they can tell stories, too," he says. "So why shouldn't it be there now? Why shouldn't it have its time? Right now, the West End needs something new to come along. It needs a new generation of people coming along, so, hopefully, this will make it happen."
Prince is nervous. During the second and third week of rehearsals, she is keeping her troupe on their toes, ensuring their moves are slick, while making slight amendments to the soundtrack. "All we can do is work as hard as we can, enjoy the process, enjoy the ride, and try to produce something that is life-affirming, entertaining, energetic and funny," she says.
"We want to entertain you. A lot of people might think they might not enjoy this show. A lot of people might be, like, 'A hip-hop musical? Theatre? Dance? Ewwwww, I don't know. Not for me.' But what we're setting out to prove is, if you take a gamble and come, you will enjoy it, and you will think differently about some things when you leave. You might think differently the next time you're standing at a bus stop and someone's got their hood up. You might find something to relate to them about."
'Into the Hoods', Novello Theatre, London (0844 482 5170; www.intothehoods.co.uk), Tomorrow (previews) to 10 May